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Bridge Over Troubled Borders

If the US does not become a bridge between the Israelis and Palestinians in managing the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, we will turn a chance for peace into a recipe for violence.

In planning for the war in Iraq, those who argued that the road to peace in Jerusalem ran through Baghdad ignored a critical fact: that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--a dispute between two national movements competing for the same space--existed before Saddam Hussein was ever on the scene, and of course it continues to exist after his fall.

Having said that, it is conceivable that the Iraq war might have made a difference in the pursuit of peace--but only if the Bush Administration had managed to quickly stabilize Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion. Then the US would have been perceived as harder to resist, and in the context of an environment of renewed hope and optimism in the region, the then newly installed Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen, might have been able to challenge Arafat by offering his people an alternative that worked--namely, one built on stopping the violence and producing a better life for the Palestinians with a credible pathway toward achieving their national aspirations. In addition, a quick victory might have tempered Iranian and Syrian support for terrorism against Israel. Instead, Iranian support of Hezbollah (and increasingly Hamas and Islamic Jihad) has remained strong, and will be one of the harder forms of resistance that Palestinian President Abu Mazen will have to overcome.

It is vital that we not fail in Iraq, not only for reasons of the war on terror but also for reasons that affect the entire Middle East. Should we fail, radical Islamists everywhere will appear to ride a tide of invincibility. Jihadists--who reject Israel's existence--will feel vindicated in their commitment to ongoing struggle, and peace advocates will feel increasingly exposed and vulnerable.

At this juncture, however, America's most important actions in getting the Israelis and Palestinians on track to peace is to foster a real ceasefire by managing the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. For the Gaza withdrawal to be successful, the US must become a bridge between the Israelis and the Palestinians, coordinating mutual responsibilities. Without clear coordination, there is a real risk that Hamas will raise the level of violence in an effort to create the impression in the Arab world that it liberated Gaza by forcing the Israelis out. In such circumstances, Sharon would then retaliate with withering military might to demonstrate that Israel will not be humiliated as it withdraws. In short, rather than enlarging the opening toward dialogue, unmanaged Israeli withdrawal from Gaza could have the opposite effect, igniting even more violence.

But rather than dwelling on all that can go wrong, now, in the aftermath of Yasir Arafat's death and Abu Mazen's election, is the time to focus on what can go right if we help shape events. Prime Minister Sharon was not prepared to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority when Arafat was alive because he believed he had no partner. He views Abu Mazen very differently. While Sharon will still insist that Abu Mazen act against those who are responsible for the terror, he understands that Israel has a stake in having a Palestinian partner. nd Abu Mazen's election victory--with the clear perception among Palestinians that he has a mandate for change--is an indicator that Palestinians want their life to be normal again. They want an end to the chaos and lawlessness of Arafat and an end to the Israeli siege. And there's a growing consensus among the Palestinians that they cannot expect the Israelis to cease their incursions into Palestinian cities, towns, and villages until they themselves stop the violence. Put simply, there is the basis of a bargain: the Palestinians stop attacks against Israelis; the Israelis lift checkpoints and stop incursions and targeted killings.

Any understandings that Abu Mazen reaches internally must take place in parallel with the Israelis--and the US must make sure that happens. Washington must also act to ensure that both sides have the same understandings and expectations of what is going to happen on the ground--not only to produce an atmosphere of calm, but to create the basis for managing the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and later from the northern part of the West Bank.

To achieve its aim of statehood, the Palestinian leadership will have to take responsibility for lands under their control and create real law and order. There will be no Palestinian state so long as there are independent militias with their own arms and their own aims. Campaigning on the theme of establishing public order, Abu Mazen will need to demonstrate that there is only one authority. The more he appears to deliver, the better he will do to win the trust of his public and its support on politically charged issues. Bottom line, there is a core bargain between Israelis and Palestinians that will ultimately determine the future--and it is not land for peace, but security for freedom. As Abu Mazen once said to me, "The Israelis want security and we have failed to provide it. If we do, we will get what we need."

With a partner like Abu Mazen, there is now an opening. One unmistakable lesson from the past is that openings never last long, and if they are lost, the situation is always worse. Another important lesson from the past is that nothing ever implements itself. If we want to take advantage of the moment, we need to make sure both sides do what they can to change the reality on the ground. Good statements and good intentions will be overwhelmed by violence on the ground. With a Palestinian leadership that appears ready to assume its obligations, the US and the Israelis have a stake in creating an environment in which Abu Mazen succeeds--not by relieving the Palestinians of their responsibilities, but by ensuring there is a demonstrable payoff when they act responsibly.

If Abu Mazen can build his authority over the next several months and the Palestinians see a leadership that is accountable for the first time in their history, then ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will again be possible. If Abu Mazen does not, it will be a long time before peacemaking becomes possible again. The stakes are high and intensive American involvement will be necessary, but with the right effort on our part, we may just be able to find the missing peace. 

Dennis Ross was President Clinton's envoy to the Middle East. He is currently the Counselor and Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is the author of The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace